Monday, December 8, 2014

Betrayal at Ebenezer Creek: Deaths of freed slaves in Georgia swamp 150 years ago drew outrage

Ebenezer Creek in Effingham County, Ga. (The Trust for Public Land)

A paddle through bald cypress and water tupelo in Georgia’s Ebenezer Creek is enchanting.

Water storks use their inscrutable eyes to watch for striped bass. American alligators, feed too, in the National Natural Landmark. Everywhere are the cypress, their swollen trunks and “knees” rising from the murky waters.

Beyond enchanting, says, the best remaining cypress-gum swamp forest in the Savannah River basin offers scenes “straight out of Tolkien’s Trilogy.”

But the swamp forest offered no tantalizing respite on Dec. 9, 1864, when Ebenezer Creek became a nightmarish death trap for just-freed slaves.

The refugees had been following a column of Union troops that was quickly advancing on Savannah during Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Confederate horsemen were on their foe's heels, notably rear elements of the 14th Corps, commanded by Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (not to be confused with the Confederate president).

"Contrabands," or former slaves, during the Civil War (Library of  Congress)

Upon his orders, Union soldiers hastily removed pontoon bridges they had just used to cross Ebenezer Creek.  The stranded slaves were left on their own, effectively betrayed by Davis.

Rebel cavalry under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler rode into the chaotic scene, swords slashing. Whole families rushed into the water in a bid to escape, and most of the casualties were the result of drowning.

Union Col. Charles D. Kerr of the 16th Illinois, who would later help raise an outcry over Davis’ decision, wrote that with “cries of anguish and despair, men, women, and children rushed by the hundreds into the turbid stream, and many were drowned before our eyes. From what we learned afterwards of those who remained on land, their fate at the hands of Wheeler’s troops was scarcely to be preferred.”

(State of Georgia)

An historical marker erected in 2010 in this remote area of Effingham County, northwest of Savannah, said that hundreds of the slaves drowned.

While some estimate up to 5,000 were at Ebenezer Creek, no one was making a daily count of those following each Federal column.

“Consequently, it is hard to know how many drowned, how many got across -- some did -- and how many were picked up by Confederate cavalry -- Wheeler reported thousands,” said Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, who has toured the site. A few Federal soldiers did try to help the slaves.

Gen. Jefferson Davis
Last week, The Trust for Public Land announced that the historic crossing has been protected for a future greenway park through purchases of private property. For now, there is no public access to the site, save a canoe or kayak ride or private tour.

“The site is especially evocative because there is not much evidence of modern life -- no paved roads or telephone lines,” Crawford told the Picket. “Also, the old road bed is elevated, so you can imagine how the low-lying areas to either side could be swampy after a rain.  For someone who couldn’t swim or was trying to bring along children, the road was the only place to be.”

The horrific incident, which occurred 150 years ago Tuesday, had a dramatic -- if short-lived – impact.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met in Savannah with Sherman and African-American church leaders as outrage grew over the Ebenezer Creek incident.

President Lincoln approved Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, confiscating 400,000 acres of coastal property and redistributing it in 40-acre parcels to former slaves. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, would later rescind the order.

Book: General planned to rid himself of slaves

The Union’s Jefferson Davis had more than his share of notoriety before the Ebenezer Creek debacle.

Two years before the March to the Sea, he was given command of the 14th Corps during the Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea, Davis shot and killed Union Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson following an argument. He was never charged.

(The Trust for Public Land)

Despite that scandal, Davis was considered a competent officer. He led the corps during the march, finding a need to cross Ebenezer Creek's swollen and wide waters. Mindful of Rebel raiders, his troops set up the pontoon bridges.

A 1998 Civil War Times article argues that Davis was annoyed by the demands of the thousands of freed slaves he was unable to put to work.

Angered by food shortages and the fact the slaves were slowing his march, along with mud that bogged down equipment, the general decided to rid himself of the refugees by having his subordinates tell them to wait to cross.

The soldiers than removed the temporary bridges. A stampede ensued, with some victims crushed in the rush while many more "contrabands" drowned.

Anne Sarah Rubin, in her recent book, “Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory” writes that Davis had planned such a move. “In no way could the deaths be excused as a product of a quick decision.”

Tour of property in 2012 (Georgia Battlefields Association)

While there is no evidence Sherman knew of the plan, he later defended Davis’ actions as militarily necessary and unavoidable, writes Rubin.

An outraged Maj. James A. Connolly of Illinois wrote about the massacre, and accompanying publicity led Stanton to travel to Savannah. He called the incident an "inhuman, barbarous proceeding."

Davis was neither punished nor reprimanded. Sherman, who himself was hardly progressive on his attitude toward African-Americans, never made any move to bring justice to the freed slaves.

Sherman did issue Field Order No. 15 on Jan. 16, 1865, while his troops occupied Savannah. It punished Southern planters and provided for about 400,000 acres to be distributed to former slaves.

“From Sherman’s perspective the most important priority in issuing the directive was military expediency,” says the New Georgia Encyclopedia. “It served as a means of providing for the thousands of black refugees who had been following his army since its invasion of Georgia. He could not afford to support or protect these refugees while on campaign.”

While the order was scrapped by President Johnson, its legacy continues because the slave reparations movement has pointed to it as the federal government’s promise to make restitution to blacks for enslavement.

And it’s also the likely origin for the phrase “forty acres and a mule,” which spread throughout the South following the march, according to the encyclopedia.

Dying in the pursuit of freedom

(Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails)

The history of Ebenezer Creek, which flows into the Savannah River near the South Carolina border, starts well before the Civil War. It is near one of the first settlements in the British colony of Georgia.

In 1734, Lutherans escaping religious persecution in Salzburg, Austria, arrived in the 1-year-old town of Savannah looking for a new home,” says Sherpa Guides. Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe directed the group approximately 30 miles up the Savannah River to Ebenezer Creek.

Ebenezer was around for a few decades but the town was heavily damaged during the American Revolution and the county seat was moved to Springfield, Georgia. Very little is left of the settlement.

The city of Springfield has been interested in a recreational greenway, and preservationists and the federal and state government supported its move to acquire the Civil War property as part of the project.

The 275-acre parcel was purchased with a National Coastal Wetlands Conservation grant of $400,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The money went through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, according to the Savannah Morning News.

(The Trust for Public Land)

An additional $100,000 came from the Trust for Public Land, from donations by the R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Foundation and the Knobloch Family Foundation.
The purchase protects 2 miles of rivers and streams.

“The city of Springfield is pleased to announce the acquisition of the Ebenezer crossing property,” say Mayor Barton Alderman. “This purchase will be important for Springfield, Effingham County and the State of Georgia due to the historical and cultural nature of the property.

“It has been our dream to preserve Ebenezer Creek’s natural beauty for the enjoyment of future generations. Our hope is that the Creek will remain as it is now, bringing tourists to enjoy the peace and serenity of the area.”

Curt Soper, Georgia and Alabama director for the Trust for Public Land, said the “significance of the Ebenezer crossing is immense and this land is protected in memory of the many lives that were lost here 150 years ago in the pursuit of freedom.”

There is no legal access to the property yet, Soper tells the Picket, because it is surrounded by private land.

The city of Springfield expects to work on this in the future, but the site is not ready for unfettered public access just yet,” he says. “It is easier to paddle by the site in a canoe or kayak as there is a boat launch nearby on the Savannah River at the mouth of Ebenezer Creek.

Alderman told the Savannah newspaper that if the city can gain access, parking and restrooms might be built.

Michael Thurmond
A Georgia Historical Society and Georgia Department of Economic Development marker sits along a road about a mile from the pontoon crossing site. It was dedicated in 2010.

Among the speakers was Michael Thurmond, former Georgia labor commissioner. He is the author of “Freedom: Georgia's Antislavery Heritage, 1733-1865.”

Thurmond told the crowd, “We come to commemorate, consecrate and celebrate the nameless and faceless heroes and heroines, the men, women and children, who sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of the precious commodity called freedom,” Thurmond said.

Steve Longcrier, head of the nonprofit Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails, said his organization is developing an interpretive sign that will be installed next to Ebenezer Creek.

“The public awareness of that significant historic site is far-reaching,” says Longcrier.


  1. Thanks. Coincidentally, was thinking today whether there might be an update on this....

  2. 1) As a condition of receiving pardons, southerners, whose net worth exceeded $20,000 and were not recipients of an automatic pardon as a result of Johnson's amnesty proclamation, give to each head of family of their former slaves from 5 to 10 acres of land.
    2) The freedmen would receive full title to the land with the stipulation that the land could not be alienated during the life time of the grantee."

    President Johnson chose not to adopt this recommendation. However, according to Oubre, Megis' proposal may have been the inspiration for Thaddeus Stevens' confiscation plan (one of the many he proposed for black reparations). Just and well thought out I feel had it been approved Stevens' proposal may have provided a more equal distribution of wealth. The primary points of Stevens' 'confiscation plan' according to Oubre are as follows:

    1) The government would confiscate the property of all former slaveholders who owned more than 200 acres of land.
    2) The property seized would have been allocated to the freedmen in lots of 40 acres.
    3) The remaining land would be sold and the monies would be used to remunerate loyalists whose property had been seized destroyed or damaged as a result of the war.
    4) Any remaining funds would be utilized to augment the pensions of Union soldiers and to pay the national debt.

    Yet another proposal suggested that the government transport the freedmen west and colonize them along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was argued that to do so would prove beneficial for the railroad as well as the freedmen. The freedmen would have their land. The railroad would have both an accessible labor force and someone to protect the trains from Indian attack Additionally, adopting this particular proposal would also bode well for the government. permitting it to keep its promise to provide land for the freedmen. Simultaneously, according to Carl Schurz sand John Sprage, "this plan would serve to remove some of the "surplus" black [people] from the South."

    The American Missionary Association requested, to no avail, that President Johnson reserve the land promised to the freedmen. If that was not a suitable option they further petitioned that the freedmen be provided with transportation to homestead lands in the west and provided with rations enough to sustain them until crops could be yielded.

    Concerned with the burgeoning African American population in Virginia, Orlando Brown proposed, that some 10,000 African American soldiers stationed in Texas, might be provided with a land bounty in Texas if they remained there and sent for their families. A similar proposal was made by "Sergeant S.H. Smothers, an African American soldier from Indiana serving with the 25th Army Corps in Texas."

    But President Johnson seemed to be determined to make sure that freedmen received no land. He mercilessly vetoed any proposal having to do with providing land to the freedmen that reached his desk. Finally, Congress overrode his veto and passed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau. However, it contained no provision for granting land to the freedmen, other than to provide them access to the Southern Homestead Act at the standard rates of purchase”.

  3. What would you expect from these NMF people, when they enslave you, then free you, why would they give you anything else